Art and the Black Death Arrival in the Medieval World

Art and the Black Death Arrival in the Medieval World
Copyright © Illustration by Jason Nguyen

It was in the month of October and the year was 1347 that trading ships from the Black Sea port of Caffa, Crimea, slowly arrived in the harbour of Messina, Sicily. Dock workers, family, and friends who went down to greet the ships looked on in horror, as many of the ship’s crewmen were either sick or dead with some of the crewmen still holding on to their oars. There had been stories told that there was an unspeakable plague that was spreading along the Silk Route by black rats (Rattus rattus) that was taking life both swiftly and cruelly, but until now, Europe had not known of a plague so deadly. According to Barbara Tuchman, “Rumors of a terrible plague supposedly arising in China and spreading through Tartary (Central Asia) […] told of a death toll so devastating that all of India was said to be depopulated […] no serious alarm was felt in Europe until the trading ships brought their black burden of pestilence into Messina.”

What came off the ships in Messina, Sicily in 1347 must have seemed dark and sinister to its townspeople. Many of the crewmen both dead and alive who were taken off of the ships had noticeable black swellings (buboes) that resembled enlarged boils the size of an egg and some as large as an apple. These buboes were mostly seen in the neck, armpit, and groin area where they would eventually rupture causing severe pain than death. According to Barbara Tuchman, “The sick suffered severe pain and died quickly within five days of the first symptoms. As the disease spread, other symptoms of continuous fever and spitting of blood appeared instead of the swelling or buboes. These victims coughed and sweated heavily and died even more quickly, within three days or less, sometimes in twenty-four hours.”

This was just the beginning of what was to become a pestilence that would start to infect people in multiple ways as it spread throughout Europe. The plague was not known as the Black Death in the medieval period but was later given that name. According to Barbara Tuchman, “The phantom enemy had no name. Called the Black Death only later recurrences, it was known during the first epidemic simply as Pestilence to Great Mortality.” It is believed that the name, the Black Death was given to the pestilence due to the blackened tumors that spread over a victim’s body, but it was more likely a mistranslation of a Latin term known as Atra Mors. The word Atra can be defined as black or terrible.

The Black Death swept across Europe showing no preference in its victims, as the plague-infected all. In these terrifying times, many people tried to get away from the overcrowded and filthy cities only to discover that there were very few places where one could find comfort in their isolation. Those who could not afford to leave their homes, found themselves living in constant fear for themselves and those they loved. It was in Siena, Italy, that a man named Agnolo di Tura recorded how the deep-rooted fear of the plague left many people numb and cold hearted. As Barbara Tuchman points out, “‘Father abandoned child, wife husband, one brother another,’ he wrote, ‘for this plague seemed to strike through the breath and sight. Moreover, so they died. And no one could be found to bury the dead for money or friendship […] And I, Agnolo di Tura, called the Fat, buried my five children with my own hands, and so did many others likewise.’”

With no earthly explanation for what some people believed was the coming of the end of the world, communities and those in position of power began to isolate families and people whom they believed were infected with the plague. According to Molly Edmond, “Because no one was quite sure how the Black Death was spreading, many simply chose to avoid anyone with symptoms. Some towns built pestilence houses, where the sick could be taken to die. Others boarded up entire houses as soon as someone inside took ill. Those who could afford to do so fled to the countryside.” As thousands of people in Europe began to succumb to the plague, many of them started to question their religious beliefs, as their prayers had gone unanswered. Europe no longer seemed familiar to many of those who managed to survive the plague, as they watched the demise of Europe’s culture, religion and economic stability.

The Camposanto Monumental which houses the Triumph of Death is also known as the holy field. Legend has it that the Camposanto Monumental was built upon the soil that was bought from Golgotha (Calvary). According to the Tuscany Co., ‘Camposanto Monumental, Accommodation & Travel Guide,’ “The Golgotha was a site reputed to be located right outside the walls of Jerusalem, where the Christ was crucified. The sacred soil was brought back by Ubaldo de Lanfranchi, who was the archbishop of Pisa […] The burial ground of the Camposanto Monumental in Pisa is situated right above the remains of the old baptistery of the Church of Santa Reparata. The burial ground has a reputed legend, which claims that anybody buried in it will dissolve in only twenty-four hours.”

The Camposanto Monumental’s beautiful Gothic architecture and the legend of the “‘holy field’ adds to the atmosphere that surrounds the ‘Triumph of Death’ and succeeds in complementing the different scenes and legends that tell the allegories of the universality of death within the framework of the Triumph of Death.”

Francisco Traini’s ‘Triumph of Death’ was painted during a time in history when Europeans feared the Black Death to the point of mass hysteria. From the years 1347 to 1351, the Black Death swept across Italy and the rest of Europe was mercilessly killing with unimaginable speed. Francisco Traini knew firsthand what this plague was capable of, as he watched in horror the suffering and painful deaths of many of his family members and townspeople. One has to believe that the relentless omnipresence of Death that characterises the scenes in the ‘Triumph of Death’ came from Francisco Traini’s emotional reaction from his experience of having walked among the dead and dying, while Death brushed past him. One would assume that the harrowing personal trauma Francisco Traini experienced while walking among the victims of the Black Death altered his view on life and his style of painting, as Francisco Traini’s style and subject matter became increasingly Francisco Traini’s ‘Triumph of Death’ was painted during a time in history when Europeans feared the Black Death to the point of mass hysteria.

The ‘Triumph of Death’ is part of a cycle with three other frescos: the ‘Last Judgment,’ the ‘Hell,’ and the ‘Anacoreti nella Tebaide’ (“lives and deaths of saintly anchorites”). This fresco cycle is considered to be the most famous and largest cycle of frescos in the Camposanto Monumental. The ‘Triumph of Death,’ the ‘Last Judgment,’ the ‘Hell,’ and the ‘Anacoreti nella Tebaide’ were commissioned by Simone Saltarelli, archbishop of Pisa between 1323 and 1342. The fresco cycle was painted on the inner sides of the Camposanto Monumental’s large blank unarticulated walls that were pre-arranged for fresco decoration for the purpose of relating to the beholder. The allegories from the ‘Old Testament,‘ according to Lorenzo Carletti and Francesca Polacci, “The ‘Triumph of Death’ and the Thebais are the iconographic exceptions of the whole program; in fact, these stories are taken neither from the Old and the New Testaments nor from the lives of saints.”

The ‘Triumph of Death’ is a narrative painting that is characterised by a complex combination of allegorical symbols that are represented by metaphysical time. This metaphysical time can be seen in the fresco as a divider where the physical (external) world is arranged in the lower level and the spiritual (transcendent) world is arranged in the upper level of the fresco. The ‘Triumph of Death’ is painted in what appears to be seven scenes, and all of these scenes depict the Black Death in one way or another. These seven scenes in the ‘Triumph of Death’ are connected by the general theme of Death which is inescapable and leaves the beholder with the reminder for self-reflection. The scenes do not necessarily have a narrative connection, as the scenes tend to unfold in many different directions at once. According to Christine Boeckl, “For all its embedded narrative, it does not claim the unity of action or unity of space but offers a conceptual arrangement that organises the many narrative units. The single episode is as real as the overall structure is abstract. The subject can be described as the power of death to dash all earthly hope.”

The unfolding of the seven scenes in the ‘Triumph of Death’ speaks to the beholder through moral examples and with inscriptions on scrolls in vernacular (early Italian) and Latin.

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